July 1, 2005

Property Ruling Strikes Nerve in House

Reacting to high court decision, lawmakers pass amendment that would ban use of federal funds for some seizures of private land.

By Maura Reynolds and David G. Savage, Staff Writers
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Angry over a recent Supreme Court decision, the House on Thursday began a legislative drive to roll back the power of local governments to seize homes and other private property for economic development projects.

By a vote of 231 to 189, the House approved an amendment forbidding the administration from spending money on local projects that seize private property for business development.

"What all of us who wish to see this legislation enacted into law want to make sure happens is that the federal government's money isn't used to finance taking someone's property from them to build a strip mall," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.).

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California was among those who voted against the amendment, saying she opposed withholding federal dollars "for the enforcement of any decision of the Supreme Court, no matter how opposed I am to that decision."

The vote was loosely along party lines: 192 Republicans and 39 Democrats voted to approve; 157 Democrats, 31 Republicans and one Independent were opposed.

In a ruling that has touched a public nerve, the high court in a 5-4 decision last week upheld the power of cities to condemn private property for redevelopment projects. The ruling was a victory for the city of New London, Conn., which had condemned a number of homes in its old waterfront district to clear the way for offices and a hotel.

The city said it wanted to create new jobs and raise more tax revenue. The homeowners who fought the seizure said the city should not be allowed to take their property to give it to private developers.

The ruling in Kelo vs. City of New London sparked outrage, and a number of lawmakers said they wanted to repudiate the high court.

Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) said the court had failed to "defend the liberties and freedoms our forefathers so desperately envisioned when they established our great nation."

Although the federal government does not initiate such projects, its money may play a crucial role in some of them, he said. "The practical effect this amendment will have is that it will prohibit federal funds from improving or constructing infrastructure support on lands acquired involuntarily, through the use of eminent domain, for private development," said Garrett, the amendment's chief sponsor.

The vote on the amendment came as separate bills were introduced in the House and Senate that would deprive state and local governments of federal funds for any development project that relied on eminent domain to seize private property.

The Garrett amendment, added to the annual spending bill that funds the departments of Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation, would be in effect just for the coming fiscal year, which starts Oct 1 and lasts to Sept. 30, 2006. By contrast, if either of the two standalone bills were to pass, they would be more sweeping and permanent.

"The Supreme Court voted last week to undo private property rights and to empower governments to kick people out of their homes and give them to someone else because they feel like it," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

DeLay and other conservatives in Congress accused the Supreme Court of "judicial overreach" and expanding the rights of government at the expense of private property.

"The only silver lining to the cloud of this decision is the possibility that this time the court has finally gone too far and that the American people are ready to reassert their constitutional authority," DeLay said.

The House bill introduced Thursday was sponsored by Sensenbrenner and Democrat John Conyers Jr. of Michigan. The Senate bill was introduced Monday by Republican John Cornyn of Texas.

"This [court] decision, in my opinion, has the potential of becoming the Dred Scott decision of the 21st century," Sensenbrenner said, referring to the 1857 court ruling that upheld slavery.

"We had a civil war as a result of the mistake that the Supreme Court made in the 1850s."

Usually, conservatives criticize the court for "judicial activism." In this instance, they criticized the court for failing to act to block the initiatives of a city council.

In their opinion, the justices noted that state legislatures are free to pass laws that bar officials from condemning property for private development. California and at least eight other states have laws on the books that forbid the use of the eminent domain power to condemn private property for economic development, except in "blighted" areas.

In the House on Thursday, Democrats in the California delegation voting for the Garrett amendment were Loretta Sanchez of Anaheim, Ellen O. Tauscher of Walnut Creek, Maxine Waters of Los Angeles and Lynn C. Woolsey of Petaluma; Republicans voting against were Jerry Lewis of Redlands and Bill Thomas of Bakersfield.